|By Henry J. Holcomb, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Oct. 13, 2006 --David Grasso's eight-year-old company is putting the finishing touches on a deal to build a $315 million, 1.2-million-square-foot complex that he said would bring another five-star hotel chain to Center City.
It also would give the Art Museum neighborhood's popular Whole Foods Market grocery store much larger quarters.
The 46-story complex would be built on a parking lot on Vine Street, between 16th and 17th Streets. If a planned second apartment tower is built, the mixed-use project would have more square feet than Comcast Center, now under construction on JFK Boulevard at 17th Street.
The key components are in place, and the project complies with city codes, Grasso said this week, so construction should begin in January. The new Whole Foods is scheduled to open in mid-2008, the rest of the project six months later.
Aside from the 10-year property-tax abatement available to all projects, no government assistance is required, Grasso said.
The complex is being developed by Grasso's firm, Grasso Holdings, formerly Metro Development Co., now based on the 10th floor of the Graham Building, at 30 S. 15th St. Grasso bought the building with a pension-fund partner in July for $35 million.
The new Whole Foods would be 60,000 square feet -- much larger than the 16,000-square-foot store at 20th and Callowhill Streets that it would replace.
"We will be able to add a lot of dining venues -- a seafood bar in the fish department, a barbecue stand in the meat department," said Sarah Kenney, Whole Foods' regional marketing director.
Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District municipal-services and economic-development agency, said the complex would be "a major animator of the north side of Vine Street... extending the fabric of Center City northward."
Whole Foods, Levy said, has done for grocery stores what Borders did long ago for bookstores: "They are not just a grocery store, they are an activity center."
The project would help address a shortage of rental apartments in Center City, Levy said.
This is one of two major deals that Grasso, 36, said he would soon complete. An amateur guitar player, Grasso is also seeking, as he put it, "to foster the local music scene" by creating a live-music venue for the national House of Blues network.
This would include a 500-seat music hall and a 300-seat restaurant in former bank space on the ground floor of the Packard Building, 15th and Chestnut Streets, which Grasso bought in 2001 and renovated.
On its Web site, House of Blues touts that its music halls "feature almost every music genre imaginable."
The 26-story Packard Building includes offices on the lower floors and 153 residential condominiums. A House of Blues private club, with an outdoor roof deck, is planned for the penthouse floor, Grasso said.
On the Vine Street project, Grasso is not ready to name the luxury hotel chain that would occupy the first 15 floors of the tower fronting on 17th Street. "Three hotel chains are negotiating with us," Grasso said.
He is also not ready to name the major retailer that he said would occupy about 60,000 square feet of retail space above Whole Foods. Other retail real estate executives said he was close to a deal with a major electronics and appliance-store chain. The complex would also include a health club.
Luxury rental apartments would occupy most of the floors above the hotel. About 40 condominium residences are planned for the top floors. The complex, designed by Brennan Beer Gorman Architects, of New York, includes a second apartment tower, but there is no timetable for its construction.
Whole Foods already has big plans for the site. Its new store, at the northwest corner of 16th and Vine Streets, would be a next-generation store for the Austin, Texas, chain, said Ken Meyer, president of the company's Middle Atlantic region.
"We are really taking the experience of coming to a food store to a new level. As the saying goes, people love to shop, people love food, but people hate to shop for food. We'll create a place where people can come and meet friends and have a good time," Meyer said.
This would include the dining venues in several departments and places to eat, including a sushi bar, on a mezzanine overlooking the city skyline. All departments would be much larger. "And we'll put a lot of emphasis on local products... and unique foods," Meyer said.
And there would be plenty of parking, Meyer said. Grasso said about 300 of the 900 parking spaces in the complex would be dedicated to Whole Foods.
Number of square feet developed or planned: Seven million
SOURCE: Grasso Holdings
Contact staff writer Henry J. Holcomb at 215-854-2614 or email@example.com.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer
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